Majority of Californians Still Support HSR

Despite overruns and non-stop pillorying in the press, new poll shows most still want the train built

A Eurostar high-speed train in England. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
A Eurostar high-speed train in England. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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The majority of Californians still support the state’s high-speed rail project, with 53 percent in favor, and 43 percent opposed, according to a new poll from the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). That’s up from 48 percent in favor when the survey was conducted last year, despite revelations that costs have risen substantially.

Support remains especially strong in the Bay Area, with 61 percent in favor.

It’s amazing that support for the project remains strong, considering the beating it continues to take in the press.

CALmatters columnist Dan Walters, in “Bullet train is a solution in search of a problem,” and the Bay Area News Group’s Daniel Borenstein, with “Jerry Brown’s embarrassing bullet-train bragging to Trump,” were just two of many writers who once again pilloried the project. “The bullet train, however enticing, is not a wise use of tens of billions of transportation dollars. It wasn’t when voters passed Proposition 1A in 2008, and the situation is worse today,” wrote Borenstein in his piece.

The Garces Viaduct in Kern County started construction this month--just the latest piece of HSR to start construction. Photo: CaHSRA
The Garces Viaduct in Kern County started construction this month–just the latest piece of HSR to start construction. Photo: CaHSRA

Long-time opponents, such as Borenstein and Walters, started their recent editorials against the program ostensibly because costs have risen, but then lapse into making the same points they did before the voters approved HSR in 2008. “California has no shortage of transportation problems, but traveling between San Francisco and Los Angeles isn’t one of them,” writes Walters in his recent piece (has he ever traveled between S.F. and L.A.?).

It’s also worth noting that the Los Angeles Times wrote about the PPIC poll as it applies to political candidates, but once again conspicuously failed to mention the results of the HSR question. As Streetsblog has pointed out before, the Times deliberately omits positive news and information about HSR.

“Nothing much has changed when it comes to attacking rail in America,” wrote Andy Kunz, President and CEO of the US High Speed Rail Association. “If you dig behind the surface of this, it is always the same–the ongoing influence of the auto/highway/oil lobby in America. They’ve been saying the same things, doing the same things, etc. for decades.”

As Kunz sees it, the continued popularity of the project, despite the media bias and the incessant and often false attacks against it, are an indication that Californians are probably traveling to Europe and Asia and experiencing high-speed rail first hand. They take bullet trains between Paris and London, Tokyo and Osaka, Beijing and Shanghai, and ride top-notch connecting services, and then wonder why traveling around California has to be so slow, frustrating, and unreliable. You can’t keep telling people that HSR will never work to make their lives better and their travels easier when they’ve experienced it first hand overseas.

“The evidence is all around the world, EVERY country that has invested in HSR has benefited enormously, and continues to benefit, while America continues to get worse (in terms of oil dependency, congestion, highway deaths, sluggish economy from sluggish transportation),” added Kunz. “It’s quite amazing how they have kept America stuck in a sort of time-warp of the 1950s, while the rest of the world has bolted into the 21st century.”

Chart: PPIC survey
Chart from the PPIC survey

Of course, many, including the mostly Republican opposition to HSR and writers such as Borenstein, are crying for a redo of the only high-speed rail poll that really matters: the November 2008 vote to approve the project. The argument goes that voters deserve another chance because they were “lied to” about construction costs.

They might have a point–if the PPIC poll had shown public support cratering. But it’s now widely known that costs are higher than original assumptions (in fact, that information was included in the PPIC polling question) and yet there’s been little change in support. That said, Dan Richard, Chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority Board, reportedly said that he would not oppose a re-vote on the project in 2020. That may simply be because a second voter affirmation would be a powerful tool to hush opponents (plus the 2020 presidential election is expected to bring out oodles of progressive voters). It would be a risky proposition for HSR, since the PPIC poll also shows that a majority of “likely voters” oppose the project, so everything would hinge on voter turnout.

The PPIC survey conducted interviews with 1,706 adults, including 1,193 on cell phones and 513 on landline telephones. Phone numbers were picked using computer-generated random samplings.

  • p_chazz

    Highway projects don’t go over budget to the extent that rail projects do.

  • Fresno???? You think HSR will carry a significant number of people to and from FRESNO??? Have you BEEN to Fresno? Fresno doesn’t have a commercial airport of note, because no one goes there.


  • crazyvag

    Um… sure they do… tunnels in seattle, bay bridge, big dig, carpool lanes on 405. What’s sad is they don’t provide much benefit. The 405 was a mess shortly after it opened, the Houston highway widening now has bigger jams. It takes just as long for people to go where they need to go since no alternatives were actually provided. Also, not all rail projects go over budget either. Caltrain baby bullet track expansion was relatively easy.

  • Ziggy Tomcich

    No not every aspect of HSR was wrong. The main reason for building HSR is still just as valid today as it was in 2008. What construction project has ever accurately predicted the future? You’re obviously against HSR because you don’t believe California should have a future. We see this all the time from people who want to see California fail because it fits with their political ideology.

    California needs HSR because it’s the cheapest most efficient way of moving a growing population. Naysayers of HSR are always ignorant to the enormous costs of any of the alternative transportation options.

    The question is never about the absolute cost, its the relative cost that’s important. Absolute costs are meaningless for any projects spanning decades.

  • Ziggy Tomcich

    It is the same project, same trains same tracks same reasons to build it, and the same crippling consequences to our future economy if we fail to build it. What are the alternatives you suggest? If seriously think it’s a good idea to gut the entire CaHSR project and all other passenger rail in Ca, what do you propose replacing it with? How much do you think those alternatives will cost?

  • crazyvag

    Richard. I think you’re trolling because I don’t believe that your understand of how world works can be that bad where your statements don’t make any sense.
    * Estimates changed. I don’t know what to say when you expect estimates made in 2008 to be perfectly accurate nearly 20 years later. In my job, we have a weekly status meeting and update estimates anytime we know more information. What industry do you work in where estimates and schedules can be made 20 years into the future?
    * MUCH lower speed than 220MPH project. You’re confused about average speed with maximum speeds. The trains purchased will be capable of operating at 220MPH where track geometry and traffic permits. Average speed varies between different services depending on whether on number and location of stops, but may also be impacted at terminals where Metrolink or Caltrain rush hour trains will be competing from time slots. Even new Caltrain EMUs will be capable for 110mph, so they can operate at faster speeds when corridor is expanded for HSR.
    * FAR longer travel times. Again, what is “FAR longer” even mean? Are you saying that SF to SJ time which was advertised as 30 mins will be 60 mins? 90 mins? Caltrain takes about 60 mins, but can do the run in about 45 mins with existing equipment without stops or other trains.
    * FAR higher ticket prices. Ok. have you heard of inflation? This means that when you a number is quoted, there needs to be a year associated with it. What was the quoted price that you heard for 2030? What is the new price? Can you point to some facts rather than making baseless statements?
    * Investors – Richard, you clearly don’t know this, but private investment in rail happens on the operations side. No company signs operating contracts that far in advance. Please provide a link if you can prove me wrong.

    Again, it’s fine to share opinion, but you’re getting so many facts wrong here, than you really need to proofread your posts first.

  • crazyvag

    Terrorists can just as easily drive a truck onto any of the bay bridges or onto bart or many other places. Is your solution that we should not use the bridge and use ferrys because of lower impact?

  • crazyvag

    Do you have a point here? Yes, terrorists have attacked trains, planes, tunnels all around the world. We certainly should have backup plans in case there’s a bombing at SFO that allows people to still travel. This sounds like an argument for HSR rather than against, but I don’t understand what you’re saying.

  • Ziggy Tomcich

    Trains are safer than airplanes in every measurable facet. White supremacists in the US alone have killed and terrorized several magnitudes more people than every act of terrorism on any train in world ever.

    How many people died because of a terrorism on a train?

    Cowards who fear Muslims are just ignorant white supremacists, and in fact they have more in common with Islamic terrorists then they have with most ordinary people.

  • crazyvag

    Richard, what do you mean? We are moving with with Caltrain electrification that will work with HSR too and we’re building in Central Valley as planned. Are you talking about something in New York?

  • crazyvag

    Cars and planes don’t run at full speed in all places either. It was always part of plan that trains will run slower on peninsula (110mph) and 220mph in central valley. Please shows us what those “small” stretches are and le4t us see how “small” those stretches are. You’re typically making up facts, so it’s time you provide evidence.

  • DrunkEngineer

    Your trolling powers are weak old man. Fresno is the 5th largest city in CA.

  • Ziggy Tomcich

    So you’re arguing that air travel alone can accommodate for all growth in California? Even with HSR air traffic at these airports will likely increase and max out. But air travel is still much more expensive and less efficient, and more importantly the passenger capacity for air can never come close to what HSR will bring.

    By advocating for more air travel, you’re completely ignoring the enormous costs purchasing and operating a fleet of addition aircraft and it still can’t come close to the passenger capacity of HSR.

    And of course there’s the big elephant in the room; climate change.

    Even if battery technology improves 4x to the point where electric aircraft propulsion becomes viable, it still takes a lot more energy to fly in the sky than it does to ride on a train. Trains lines are expensive to build but once they’re built they’re
    extremely efficient especially compared with air travel.

  • Richard

    Commercial air travel is quite environmentally unfriendly, particularly for shorter trips, and there aren’t too many places to build additional airports/runways.

    I’m happy the state is investing in a rail alternative, that will serve difficult to get to cities and provide downtown to downtown connections that air travel simply cannot match.

  • Ouch. “Old man”?? Microaggression!!! Call SWAT!

    I don’t care about the size (which has plateaued). I care about the CRIME. 93% of America’s cities are considered safer than Fresno.

    YOU might want to vacation in beautiful downtown (decaying) Fresno, — the muggers would welcome you.

  • p_chazz

    I actually read a Streetsblog article about a study that found that all transportation projects all have cost overruns but rail projects are slightly higher.

  • p_chazz

    No, I’m just pointing out that there are five airports in LA, so your hypothetical growth scenario which only used LAX is inaccurate.

    I’m far from anti-rail. I ride BART daily and the Capitol Corridor monthly. I just think CAHSR was poorly thought out, poorly planned and will be poorly executed upon completion, assuming it ever is completed, which seems increasingly unlikely.

  • The project doesn’t need to go back to voters for alterations. When voter iniated the process, the minutia of making it so was given to the High-Speed Rail Authority.

    The Authority updates their business plan every two years, making adjustments as circumstances change with the approval of the legislature.

    Over the years, opponents have thrown up a lot of obsticals to delay and drive up the cost. During the Recession, funding started to dry up and the Legislature made some signifigant changes to reduce costs short-term even though it was going to take longer and cost more. The Authority has actually managed to bring the budget down from the Recessionary high of $98 billionish.

  • Not everyone in the State has your rather lengthy and unusual commute.

    More common usage will be commuters who live too far to drive and not practical daily air travel, like Madera to San Francisco, or Fresno to San Jose.

    Nobody’s saying you can’t fly to work, but that doesn’t work for everyone and we don’t have room to expand and build airports.

  • So if I wanted to take a trip to Fresno from San Francisco, I’d have a very limited number of choose from, but let’s say I pay $600 for a direct flight (1:05) instead of transfering though LAX (~4:00). I’d have to plan time for security and it would be about a 45 minutes for the Muni ride to BART.

    I don’t think that’s very convenient and would opt for the long drive if I didn’t have another option.

    HSR from SF to Fresno will be less than two hours, running every 15 minutes. With about a 20 minute trip to downtown SF from the Castro by Muni Metro.

    Doesn’t HSR sound more convenient?

  • Prior to 9/11, how many people had died by airlines being high jacked and flown into buildings (or the ground)?

  • Then you should read my article. A train going 70 MPH and crashing will kill some people. A train going 200+MPH and crashing will kill most or all of the people — similar to an airliner crash. One such terrorist-caused crash and the “high speed” rail velocity will be reduced to a safer level.

  • With HSR, you don’t need to drive a truck full of explosives into a bridge. In your example, that would maybe kill 30 people (cars stop easily).

    For HSR, you need a quarter pound of C-4, an explosive device and a cell phone. You don’t set off the device until the train is close to the bomb — probably on a turn in the track. The results at 180+MPH would be catastrophic.

    And the terrorist drives away to strike another time (no suicide necessary).

  • How come EVERY estimate was wrong the same way? ALL the estimates were fake, designed to sell the project. If it were “inaccuracy,” you’d see estimates being corrected both ways. Never happens.

    This bogus estimate policy is deliberate. Even audacious Willie Brown admitted it. The infamous Willie Brown was both a con artist and an honest politician (sometimes). Here’s a frank admission by him describing how government hookwinks everyone to get what it wants — describing to a “T” the modus operandi of the HSR proponents:

    News that the Transbay Terminal is something like $300 million over budget should not come as a shock to anyone.
    We always knew the initial estimate was way under the real cost. Just like we never had a real cost for the Central Subway or the Bay Bridge or any other massive construction project. So get off it.
    In the world of civic projects, the first budget is really just a down payment. If people knew the real cost from the start, nothing would ever be approved.
    The idea is to get going. Start digging a hole and make it so big, there’s no alternative to coming up with the money to fill it in.

  • 1. What makes you think the new cost estimate as any more accurate than the old one? Same proponents doing the estimating. No objective input.

    2. Recessions don’t drive up prices — they keep prices down. Inflation was low during the recession.

    3. In 4 years, the estimate of the project went from $38 billion to “$98 billionish.” That’s not an “adjustment.” That’s fraud.

    4. They didn’t control costs. They gutted HSR. There will be no HSR south of LA, contrary to what we voted on. Yet we “southerners” (3.2 million people in San Diego County alone) still get our “fair share” of the bills.

  • 1. I’d hope each and every business plan was accurate, which means that final estimate will continually change as the Authority (CAHSRA) finds efficiencies and obstacles along the way.

    Updating the business plan every two years allows the Authority to make adjustments as situations change. Much of that is out of the Authority’s control, like Caltrain electrification.

    Two years ago, Caltrain was still finalizing their modernization plans, and nobody could have predicted a Trump Administration would withhold the Federal Government’s share after the project had been fully funded.

    Six months and $20 million late for reasons beyond Caltrain’s control, work is underway and the CAHSRA has adjusted the plan to combine electrification to Gilroy with the HSR upgrades.

    This means construction work only needs to be done once, and both Caltrain and HSR can open sooner and reducing the cost of that segment.

    That was an opportunity which didn’t exist during the prior update which changes the final estimate.

    It would be surprising if the final estimate didn’t change and the Authority has welcomed an audit to find efficiencies and savings. Hopefully, that means the cost will come down, but the final estimate is just that.

  • Joe Linton

    There was a mega-projects study that found, for the sample, rail project overruns were greater (“overruns were greater on rail projects than road projects but averaged 28 percent across the board.” CityLab ) My bet is that what highway project overruns individually lack, together they make up in volume!

  • 2. You absolutely right about costs being lower during the Recession, which is why so many infrastructure fans (rail, roads, dams, electrical grid, etc.) like me believed we should have invested in modernizing the country (putting Californians and contractors to work) rather than embrace austerity.

    When we choose to save money during the Recession by reducing project funding, we kicked the can down the road.

    And here we are, in that future we kicked the can down the road too. Are you really surprised the costs are higher now? And costs would be cheaper if we contributed more funding now to get it done faster, than let the project continue to be drawn out.

    Unless you’ve got a time machine though, there’s not much any of us can do about it now.

  • So if I understand correctly, your argument few people will take HSR to or from Fresno – the fifth largest city in California – instead of commuting by $600 direct flight (that’s $2,400/week) is based on your fears of being mugged?

    I look at the fact Fresno is the fifth largest city in California as a clear indication not everyone shares your fear of living there.

  • 3. During that four years, the global economy pretty much collapsed and we entered a Recession.

    Has it really been so long that you’ve forgotten about the Recession?

    State and Federal funding cutbacks, combined with a number of lawsuits (which have all been thrown out, but prevented the Authority from issuing bonds or beginning construction on the Penisula with Caltrain) and under the circumstances and funding at the time, the Authority estimated the final cost would be near $100 billion and wouldn’t open until 2033.

    Would you rather the Authority not have updated the plan to bring costs down and start generating revenue sooner than 2033?

    And it wasn’t High-Speed Rail supporters who prevented the Authority and Caltrain from combining HSR and Caltrain modernization to save costs. That option is gone and it’s HSR opponents you have to thank for throwing out that original plan projected at $45 billion in 2006.

  • 4. You should have read the ballot measure more closely because SF to LA/Anaheim are phase 1. The extensions to San Deigo and Sacramento come next, in phase 2.

  • The proposition we approved was for a system for SF to LA/Anaheim in Phase 1 and then San Diego and Sacramento in Phase 2.

    That hasn’t changed.

    Personally, I think we might be better off if we spent more in the short-term on the LA-San Deigo branch since it would cost less and open sooner than waiting until the full SF-LA/Anaheim is completed first.

    That would be changing the plan voters approved though and it seems like you’re pretty opposed to that.

    Would you object and hold it against the Authority if the next Business plan update had LA-San Deigo segment opening sooner?

    If they adjusted the plan to open service to San Diego in the next 5-10 years – perhaps at a lower initial speed because there’s some opportunity to work with a local partner, like sharing costs upgrading part of the Surfliner route – instead of the waiting until sometime in the 2030-2040s, would you still think it’s a bad idea to make adjustments to the plan?

  • QuestionQue

    Can you fly to Fresno or Bakersfield or Palmdale and be back in San Diego the same night? Those are cities with needs for better transportation options. The most successful High-Speed Rail systems connect a sequence of networked cities rather than isolated city pairs.

  • QuestionQue

    California High-Speed Rail is designed to increase economic development in areas of the state not well served by transportation options. Commercial airlines are designed to maximize profits for shareholders. The two goals are not the same and High-Speed Rail maximizes economic development in some of the areas of the state with the highest unemployment.

  • QuestionQue

    I am sorry if you thought that California High-Speed Rail was being designed to benefit you personally. The route is designed to promote economic benefit by networking cities without adequate transportation with the economic powerhouses of the two coastal megaregions. Your personal system would look very different.

  • p_chazz

    I doubt it. There was a lull in air travel after 9/11 but people didn’t stop flying because of terroristm.

  • Roger R.

    You obviously don’t realize there have been HSR trains running all over the world for decades. HSR trains have derailed at high speed a handful of times. Terrorists have attempted to do what your describing and, so far, failed. Here’s a link ( to the only fatal crash on the French TGV system, the second longest running HSR system in the world. The train was running on a brand new line in testing and wasn’t in regular service and was filled mainly with employees and some family members, including children (which was scandalous). It derailed at high speed on a curve, as you’ve described in one of your comments, and careened off a bridge. It was horrible, but it didn’t explode in a fire ball like an airplane would because it’s not filled with fuel. Most people on the train survived. There are other examples. So we already know what happens in the scenarios you’re describing, and you’re just wrong.

  • Roger R.

    The Surfliner route is being actively upgraded right now. I was just on it last week. New rails, ties, some short bridges, double tracking. It’s pretty impressive. I wish they’d go “all in” and electrify it and tunnel through Rose Canyon. Maybe in a future phase.

  • In other words, the original $38 billion estimate was based on 2008 prices, but now they are estimating on 2033 prices. That’s not a valid estimate — it’s fraud, and you know it.

    Did the proponents figure they could go forward with huge eminent domain land grabs and not face legal challenges? No, they didn’t “figure” anything. They CONJURED up the numbers out of thin air.

    And what about the tunnel? Was that in the estimate? Nope.

  • And how is Phase 2 — which the HSR folks have dropped — going ot be paid? Why, from the PROFITS from Phase 1!!

    Tra-la-la, la-la. Fantasyland. NO ONE expects any profits. Not anyone honest, at least.

  • The terrorist problem for planes is a solvable problem, using ground checks of passengers — which was easily implemented.

    The HSR problem is not passengers (though it can be). The problem is TRACK vulnerability. That’s not solvable without an incredibly expensive,Herculean effort — and iffy then.

  • Any southern line would NOT be HSR. Too many stops would be required. It’s political as well as economic.

  • Not HSR. Just a very expensive commuter train that’s used four hours a day, five days a week. VERY light use on a 24/7 basis.

  • From your comments, it seems like some of your frustration isn’t so much about HSR itself as discovering San Diego wasn’t included in Phase 1.

    Prop 1A only included $9.95 billion for the start of planning and construction of Phase 1, from SF to LA (Anaheim)

    Nothing was included for Phase 2, which is still a decade or more away.

  • Opponents may have referenced in a rebuttal, but ballot measures don’t include estimates on unpredictable forces outside their authors control, like legal challenges or a global economic recession.

    It wasn’t proponents who brought lawsuit after lawsuit against the project.

    I’ve never understood why opponents are always so intent on increasing the cost and adding delay to transit projects.

    Why is that? Wouldn’t you like to see transit projects done faster and cheeper?

    And since you seem to be in the know, why don’t you tell me: how much will it cost and when will it be finished? And how about that tunnel?

  • You keep making the false claim California HSR isn’t HSR

    You are well aware that California High-Speed Rail will be able to reach tops speeds of 220mph in the Central Valley. That is well above the Federal standard of 150mph on express corridors and 110mph for regional service making local stops.

    Not that it matters, but I’m curious what the number you made up that qualifies as “high-speed rail”?

  • Here’s what I said in that post: “Any southern line would NOT be HSR.”

    Are you SERIOUSLY pretending that a SOCAL HSR spur would run at 220 MPH?? ANYWHERE? I doubt it would hit 150 MPH for any but the shortest distances (just so it could CLAIM that it was HSR).

    110 MPH average speed is not HSR. Not in any common sense definition (federal arbitrary claims notwithstanding). And with local stops, I doubt it could achieve that 110 MPH average. These assertions by the HSR authority — verified by biased allies — is not objective analysis. Their record of bogus, low-ball projections makes their new projections useless — and misleading.

    MORE important, the funding source is totally fictitious. There will be no profits to fund Phase 2. And private money will come in only with guaranteed taxpayer subsidies — which was prohibited under the original measure.

  • So long as the trackwork doesn’t preclude electrication, that seems like good way to divide it up.

    The State’s new Siemens Charger SC-44 diesel/electric hybrids locomotives can run up to 125mph, which is as fast as some of the intercity and regional lines will ever get.

  • Services for commuters do tend to be designed for commuters instead of the times of lowest demand. It means there’s excess capacity off-peak, but you wouldn’t want rails, roads, or highways planned for times of lowest usage, do you?

    For example, Caltrain is at capacity running five trains-per-hour during weekday peak-hours but reduces off-peak service as demand lowers. Though for Caltrain, hourly off-peak weekend service is more than some lines run during their weekday peak.

    Perhaps the comparatively little service you receive currently in San Diego has misled you to think service levels are driven by demand when it’s usually the limits on leasing the use of freight tracks which caps capacity.

    Caltrain is able to run service so frequently during peak hours is because it owns its own trackway. I don’t know what the situation with the Pacific Sunliner is, but here in northern California ACE, Capitol Corridor, and San Joaquin lines are all running at capacity and making plans for faster, dedicated passenger track.

  • So your basis for claiming Phase 2, which has yet to be planned or funded, will not run 110mph or more is your own comment claiming it won’t be high-speed rail.

    As I said, the Federal standard is 110mph for regional service with local stops and 150mph for express service, which is less than the 220mph HSR will be able to top out at in the fastest bit of the Central Valley.

    The only “true” HSR system in the US by US standards is Acela Express, which always runs at or close to capacity and together with the Northeast Regional don’t just run profitably, they generate more than a $300,000,000/year.

    On the ridership count, the Pacific Sunliner is already the 3rd most heavily ridden Amtrak line in the country, followed in 4th place by the Capitol Corridor, and at 6th is the San Joaquins.

    Given the high ridership on California’s rather slow intercity lines and the results of this survey, what gives you a reason to think people wouldn’t ride high-speed rail?